amid chaos: Students share Christ during Mardi Gras
Wayne Northup weaves
his way through the partying crowd on Bourbon Street near St.
Louis Avenue in New Orleans. On this Monday night, known as Lundi
Gras, the high-energy Assemblies of God evangelist is on a mission
to tell others about Jesus.
Northup warns me that
we will encounter blatant immorality at every turn. His six years
of ministry experience at Mardi Gras have taught him to expect
anything, and to be spiritually prepared at all times.
Walking among people
who are totally consumed with sinful pleasure makes me wonder
how Lot and his family must have felt when living in Sodom. Yet,
the young people ministering with Northup are taking the gospel
into a 21st-century equivalent of that ancient city.
Four inches of rain
during the day has kept many would-be revelers away the night
before the Mardi Gras finale. The conclusion of the city’s
festival traditionally attracts more than a million local residents
and tourists. The weather tonight makes the assignment easier
for Northup’s 290-member Answering the Cries (ATC) team.
They have more room to maneuver along the streets, as long as
they dodge puddles. Pacing like a caged animal, Northup is ready
to meet the multitudes as part of a five-day outreach.
Mardi Gras, French
for “Fat Tuesday,” is traditionally the final day
for pagans to gorge their flesh before the arrival of Ash Wednesday.
Bags of garbage laden
with beer cans and discarded drinking cups are piled outside the
bars and strip joints in the six blocks of the French Quarter.
here to run from pain, and to do things they never would do at
home,” says Northup, wearing canvas shorts and tennis shoes,
along with his ATC sweatshirt.
ATC volunteers don’t
just encounter drunken students. People who would appear to be
mature pillars of society are also here giving themselves over
to decadence they probably would be ashamed of in their hometowns.
Although sin abounds
at Mardi Gras, ATC students are trained to deal with the debauchery.
Before embarking on the streets, the young people undergo intense
preparation on how to steer clear of sinful situations. They also
receive instruction on how to evangelize cult members, post-moderns,
homosexuals and backslidden Christians.
the past 10 days, New Orleans police have arrested more than 1,500
people for lewd behavior, public intoxication or disturbing the
peace. On Bourbon Street tonight, every merrymaker seems to have
an alcoholic beverage in hand. City crews earlier greased lampposts
to keep the inebriated from climbing them. Cigarette and cigar
fumes dangle in the outdoor air.
As the six-week pre-Lenten
carnival season nears its culmination, a clash of cultures can
be seen in the French Quarter. Other groups of Christians have
descended on the city to chastise sinners. A lone man standing
in an intersection holds a Bible aloft, only a few steps away
from a reveler dressed in a risqué Satan costume. A couple
of blocks away a man reads the Word of God through a megaphone.
Passersby mock him with twisted facial expressions and obscene
gestures. A howling woman from a nearby balcony hurls a cup of
beer his way. A half dozen people parade in the street holding
placards with messages such as “God Hates Sin” and
“Fear God.” Few of the people holding beer cups pay
attention. A bearded man dressed as Jesus totes a cross that has
a huge poster attached, urging an eclectic group such as “Demoncrats,
drunks, rock & rollers, Mormons and rich people” to
A MESSAGE OF
who is based at Emmanuel Christian Center, an Assemblies of God
church in Minneapolis, figures there are enough people waving
banners about judgment. He doesn’t believe preaching condemnation
via bullhorns or posters is the most effective method to reach
Northup, 28, knows
what it’s like to live apart from God. He abused illegal
drugs during most of his teenage years before being “radically
saved” at 17.
Answering the Cries
has become the largest organized ministry at Mardi Gras. About
half are Master’s Commission participants while about one-third
of the young volunteers are from Northup’s alma mater, North
Central University. This year, ATC branched off to conduct a separate
simultaneous Mardi Gras outreach in St. Louis involving an additional
145 young people.
Ministry teams go out
two by two, each partner with someone of the opposite sex. Northup
says the plan provides accountability and security that might
not be there otherwise.
By working together
in mixed-gender teams, the young men and women keep each other
spiritually accountable. Those who can’t remain vigilant
return to the ministry base and participate in intercessory prayer.
ATC is primarily a
ministry to plant gospel seeds and to offer hope by using creative
ways to appeal to young people.
On Lundi Gras, an ATC
team sets up outside an Iberville Avenue restaurant, which has
agreed to contribute a cash prize to a best freestyle rapper contest
in anticipation of potential customers stopping to eat. As soon
as the amplified ATC rappers start rapping, scores of people congregate
on the street in front of the eatery.
are gently told swearing isn’t allowed. ATC rappers flow
with lyrical rhymes about Jesus.
As with the rapping,
all ATC outreaches are designed to slow down revelers and make
them think. There is face painting, basketball shooting contests,
bucket and barrel drumming demonstrations, and clothing giveaways
to the homeless. After spectators gather for an artistic presentation,
other ATC team members walk among them to start conversations.
The squads don’t
spend time conversing with those who are too inebriated. ATC teams
leave the French Quarter by 11 p.m., before the boisterous crowd
becomes a stumbling throng.